Shhh! What you shouldn’t say in the booth

AIIC PRIMS arranged an advance screening of Oscar-shortlisted film “Chuchotage” - set in an interpreters’ booth. Director Barnabás Tóth answered PRIMS’ questions about the film.

The film “Chuchotage” by Hungarian director Barnabás Tóth gives a rare glimpse of what goes on within the interpreters’ booths… and some glimpses of what certainly shouldn’t! 

Produced by the Laokoon Filmgroup, the 16-minute movie has been selected in over 40 festivals, winning over 20 awards, and now shortlisted for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 2019 Academy Awards .

Barnabás Tóth kindly agreed to allow an advance screening of the film at the AIIC Private Market Sector (PRIMS) meeting in London on 12 January 2019, in the midst of the Oscar voting process.

“The idea of having 170 international interpreters watching the film is really funny, so I give my permission for the screening enthusiastically,” he wrote.

The film is notable for its insights into the mostly unseen world of the interpreters’ booths, as well as some decidedly unprofessional behaviour on the part of the characters.

Barnabás Tóth answered some questions posed by AIIC PRIMS Coordinator Raffaella Marchese, stressing that it is a work of fiction: “And let’s not forget: it’s a movie, its fiction. I hope all of your community will understand it.”
Raffaella Marchese: How did you get the idea to shoot a short film about interpreters?

Barnabás Tóth: I must admit that I have some history with your wonderful profession. After graduating from International Business Studies in English and French in 1998, I applied to two different schools: film school and the EU interpreter school. I got admitted to the first and was rejected from the second.

That proves that it’s harder to be an interpreter than to make films.

The following year, by accident, to help out a friend, I accepted a one-day conference job, on Baroque, from Hungarian to French, ALONE. I was 21 with OK French, nothing more.

The interpreters in the neighbouring booths thought I was a fool.

After ten minutes I almost gave up. In the first break I asked how many listeners I had, and they told me it was one old guy, from Luxembourg, but apparently, he switched to another language. I did the full day alone, and at the end I excused myself over the mic – probably to no one.

Twenty years later this idea came somehow: one listener, a beautiful lady.

RM: In the film there are some very specific details – an interpreter hanging glossary sheets on the booth walls; the gesticulating Italian booth interpreter, and his colleague applying lipstick; and, of course, the games between the two colleagues in the booth. These give the impression you know our world quite well. How did you gain these insights?

BT: This is how I work: I write a first draft focusing on the story and the characters. Then I dig deeper into the milieu, the details. 

I contacted someone from the EU interpreter community and had a long Skype conversation.

More importantly, I had a lot of help from a charming and talented young Hungarian interpreter. We had a long conversation in a café, and she was also kind enough to let me accompany her to a real conference where I spent a few hours in their booth, taking notes.

All these little details you mention come from this experience. The field work is a very important phase of my writing process.

She told me some anecdotes that made their way into the dialogue: like the soup boiling in the booth, and what she prefers from the buffet table. I even had to cut out some dialogue from the material we shot about the background: we had details like a coal miner consumes as much energy as a conference interpreter, stuff like this. But it didn't help the story, so we cut it out. You have to be strict when you edit.

RM: Many interpreters find it very hard to identify with the playful interpreter, they find him extremely unprofessional. He is the epitome of what should never happen in the booth. But they very soon forget about him and identify in the solitude and the sincerity of his colleague. What did you see in the characters of these two linguists that caught your attention?

BT: When you write a comedy, the tension between the two protagonists is crucial. If one is serious, the other has to be playful; if one is chubby, the other skinny, and so on. That's how I cast them.

I'm aware of how irresponsible the playful one is, but he is aware that only one person is listening, and she is gorgeous.

I also knew that the way the other reacts would re-establish the reputation of this job. And after all, the skinny, playful one also gets what he deserves at the end. And let’s not forget: it is a movie, its fiction. I hope all of your community will understand it.

RM: We often say that interpreters see history unfolding in front of them, with the world rarely noticing them. Was this the message you wanted to convey?

Yes, I think that the protagonist’s final monologue sums it up pretty well.

You guys live in the shadow, you are not part of the protocol, not even on the guest list. Your job is not only extremely hard, it involves a lot of responsibility. One mistake can cause a catastrophe.

I imagine that industrial conferences are not necessarily choice assignments, but that’s what I needed for my story. But you also do politicians, celebrities, rich and influential businessmen.

It was high time that someone made a movie about you! It is an honour that it came to be me.

RM: I would define your film as a sad comedy. Do you agree with this definition?

Yes, perfectly. The English also use the term "dramedy", the French "comédie dramatique".

In Hungarian we don't have a word for it. Maybe one of your interpreters can come up with an appropriate phrase!